What it means to be an adult has different meanings in different cultures. In India, being an adult means someone who is practical with regard to what is expected of them, and one who is able to take care of themselves. These characteristics emerge in many cases during adolescence, and in some cases, as early as late childhood. In this particular post, we focus on early adulthood, which is the period between 20 and 40 years of age.
Being more practical
As one proceeds through early adulthood, they become less imaginative and more practical in terms of what they can achieve and what role they are expected to play for the family and society.
During the later years of early adulthood, one usually gets married and has children. This can be a happy time or a miserable one.
Thinking in terms of marriage during early twenties in life cuts off self-development. This is true for Indian women, in particular. They end up hanging all their hopes on their partner. They become emotionally and motivationally dependent on their partner. This leaves them vulnerable to feelings of worthlessness, demotivation and abuse, solely because of relationship struggles, as if the only thing that matters is how well they do in relationships. Despite this ugly reality, thanks to social pressure, many women eventually resign to this outcome, and simply hope for the best.
In the end, it becomes important to attend to your own development while also attending to social and family needs. As they say “you can’t selflessly love others, if you don’t love yourself.”
As for the general thought pattern, the early adult typically thinks a lot in terms of having and maintaining a family. But as they work towards that, it’s important for them not to completely ignore themselves, if they wish to avoid blaming their families for disappointing outcomes in the long run. At the same time, focusing only on one’s own development and ignoring family would have another set of consequences.
There are some, both male and female, who focus greatly on achievement and set into motion opportunities that could give them a very rewarding outcome by the time they are in their forties. Problems arise when an early adult dreams of wonderful achievements, but either won’t or can’t make an effort to actually get there. The age-old wisdom that “it takes a lot of hard work, patience, support and sacrifice to make a dream come true” seems to be losing its touch.
Until very recently, 20-40 year olds generally showed a strong sense of responsibility i.e. they didn’t wait for a savior when things went wrong, or they didn’t do nothing to help themselves because someone else was to blame. They took charge. Even when it wasn’t their fault, they took charge to make things better.
But now, thanks to social media — especially its impact on mental illness glamor — that sense of responsibility in the 20-40 years age group is rapidly diminishing. There is “pride” and “fame” in struggle, and anyone who says otherwise is being judgmental and spreading stigma. Granted there are cases where stigma really happens, but when all of social media is claiming some sort of mental illness, one has to wonder whether it’s a genuine illness or a glamorous reason to avoid the guilt of not being responsible enough.
After all, real mental illness isn’t as easy to hide as social media would have you believe. It’s actually quite apparent. The sad thing is that these individuals are not at fault for this behavior. It’s just that they become too invested in social media narratives, having had the misfortune of growing up in this age. They do possess the capability to be responsible. It is up to parents, teachers and counselors to steer them in that direction, and counter the damage done by social media.
To be clear, responsibility is not conforming to others’ expectations. During tension related to expectations, giving in to them may seem like the most “responsible” way to help your situation, but that’s not what responsibility is. Responsibility is not dismissing yourself and accepting judgment from others as gospel. One is free to arrive at their own conclusions, as along as they don’t feel entitled to 1) Saviors 2) People who will magically change for their sake and 3) Luck. That’s what responsibility is.
Reflective and relativistic thinking
Teenagers like to think of things in terms of polar opposites. Good or bad, nothing in between. Wrong or right, nothing in between. Smart or stupid, nothing in between. So on and so forth. On the other hand, early adults become more relativistic in their thinking. Rather than think good or bad, they think good compared to whom, good by whose standards, good as decided by whom, good in what context/circumstance etc.
Similarly, they also develop reflective thinking i.e. like looking in a mirror from various different angles (hence the term “reflection”), they analyze behaviors, outcomes and situations from various different angles before jumping to conclusions. In the end, decisions and judgments tend to be softer, and more considerate of alternate perspectives.
This knack for reflection and relativistic thinking results in big-picture views like:
“People don’t change once they’re set in their ways,”
“My family is what matters in the end. The rest is just noise and, well, things to do when I’m bored”
“I’m so much better off than most people.”
“I should’ve listened to my mother when I had the chance. My life would not be so different from everyone else.”
These kinds of big-picture views develop by the time one is 40, and they are frequently imparted as life advice to children and the next generation. Such views are on their way to becoming oldage wisdom.
Early adulthood is typically rife with romantic activity. So, both young men and women are quite concerned with their body image.
Gender ideals are not fair. They are superficial, shallow and frankly quite immature. Yet, they are the biggest influence on body image between 20 and 40 years of age. Males are expected to be “toned and tough” and females are expected to be “curvy, slim-waisted and soft-skinned.” The man who has a lot of tonal definition in his arms and legs, in particular, is more likely to have positive body image. The mid region doesn’t matter as much, as long as it is within regular proportions.
Similarly, the woman who has well defined curves, a slim waist and smooth skin is likely going to feel better about their body. As one gets to the end of early adulthood, males are supposed to look less like boys and more like “men” with solid body proportions and strong shoulders and, similarly, females are supposed to look less like girls and more like “women” with mature, well defined curves.
Scent and bodily discharges
Deodorants and perfume sprays are widely common during early adulthood. Both men and women want to give off an appealing scent. Then there are unspoken rules about bodily discharges, such as farts, snot, spits etc. Men are less particular about such things, but women can be quite put off by them, if they are too frequent.
Many Indians become sexually active during early adulthood. In some parts of India, men are not required to give the women a good time. These parts are male-dominated. It’s sad, but true. In big cities, the male-domination aspect is much less acute. Thus, sexual prowess, the ability to give your partner a good time, plays a big role in body image.
Then, there are atypical sexualities like homosexuality, transexuality and bisexuality. These are a whole different story. Some do become sexually active. But many remain sexually repressed, confined to private masturbation in their own rooms. Body image becomes an unhealthy concern for sexual deviants who repress their sexuality. They turn their desires on themselves, and their excessive indulgence in porn also warps their perception of the “good looking” body into one that has to be perfect and actor-like.
We’ll stop here for now. Coming up in Adulting in India – II: Psychological and social experiences in early adulthood. Psychology is different from thought patterns. It describes things that are responsible for your mindset, moods and behavior, whereas thought patterns are how you think, when you’re trying to understand something. Social experience refers to any event that leaves a mark in the way you approach and interact with others. See you in the next post. Thank you for reading.